A few years back, there was an article about marriage that made its way around the social media sites. The well-intended article entitled “Marriage is not for You” recounts a conversation the newlywed author had with his father, where his father bestowed upon him the wisdom that marriage is about your spouse and not about you. While I fully agree with the overall sentiment of the article (that marriage requires you to die to yourself and your selfish desires), I think as Christians we miss something if we stop there.
The article seems to suggest that the primary purpose of marriage is to love your spouse selflessly. I have heard many Christian couples echo this sentiment as well. They express how marriage has revealed just how selfish they are, and that God’s primary purpose for marriage is sanctifying them through teaching them how to love selflessly as Christ does. While this is undoubtedly a characteristic of marriage, I do not believe it is God’s primary purpose for marriage.
Biblically, the first example of a marriage that we have is in the Garden of Eden. God has just finished creating the world and everything in it. He has placed Adam in the Garden and appointed him with the tasks of naming all the living creatures while helping care for and cultivate the garden (Gen. 2:15). It is at this point after He has assigned Adam his purpose, that God reaches this profound conclusion: “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18).
What the term “helper” does not mean is that the woman is of any less value or worth than the man. Genesis is very clear that both man and woman are equal image bearers and therefore of equal value and worth. However, what it does tell us is that God’s purpose in creating Eve for Adam was not so that Eve would now become his new purpose, but rather so that Eve could help Adam with the purpose that God had already assigned to him. You see, when we try to define the purpose of marriage as loving our spouse selflessly, the marriage becomes its own end. The focus of the marriage becomes inward.
Martin Luther once said, “Sin is the self caving in on itself” (author’s paraphrase). In other words, it is the self trying to meet its own perceived needs. Now in the case of marriage, the man and woman have become one. For the sake of this explanation, we will name this new person formed from the original two, as Matrimony. So Man and Woman get married, become one, and that new singular person is named Matrimony. Ok, if Matrimony now makes its primary focus to meet the needs of Matrimony (husband meeting the needs of wife or vice versa), is it not still making the same sinful error that Martin Luther speaks to in his quote? Is that not still the self trying to meet its own perceived needs? The self caving in on itself? What seems to be selfless in that you are putting your spouse first, is actually still self serving in regards to God’s greater purpose for marriage.
This is actually the very reason that Paul says it is better NOT to marry (1 Cor 7:32-35). He says that the husband will be so busy trying to please the wife and the wife will be so busy trying to please the husband that they will be distracted from their devotion to the Lord. In other words, instead of being more productive as a team for the kingdom, they will actually render themselves less effective by being consumed with meeting each other’s needs.
So it is clear then, that God’s primary purpose for marriage is not that you will seek to meet the needs of each other. His primary purpose is not the impact that it has on those inside the marriage at all, but rather how it increases the ability of those inside the marriage to have a greater impact for the kingdom on the outside world than they could ever have by themselves.
This is why who you marry is so important. This is why it matters whether he can lead you, or whether she can help you. This is why it matters that you both have the same understanding of God’s purpose for marriage. Because if you don’t, you’ll never experience that purpose in your marriage.
“I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” -1 Corinthians 7:35
In the Garden, God gave Adam the task of taking care of the Garden. That was his purpose. Eve was given to help—providing strength, wisdom, love, compassion, encouragement, and companionship. Today, we have lots of tasks and responsibilities that we are given, but we only have one ultimate purpose. Because of the events that unfolded in the Garden, and God’s plan for redemption through His Son Jesus Christ, we have a new purpose. We have been commissioned by Jesus to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20. That is our purpose. And that is the purpose of marriage. The Gospel is God’s purpose for marriage, and if you’re a man that has been blessed with a wife, it is so that she can help you with that purpose, not so that she becomes your purpose.
I believe too many Christians are using marriage as an excuse to be inwardly focused—to abandon the call to pursue the lost with the love of Christ. Christian’s are getting married and then they are becoming consumed with building their own household—their own kingdom. It has become justified idolatry in Western Christianity because after-all “your family is your first ministry.”
Don’t hear what I am not saying! I’m not saying to neglect your spouse. I’m not saying not to love and serve them (you’re commanded to). I’m not saying that your spouse shouldn’t be a top priority. As far as friendship and intimacy go, there shouldn’t be anyone as close as your spouse is. Your spouse should know that you are as exclusively devoted to them as one human being can be to another. The love, the grace, the humility, the sacrifice, the selflessness, the work that learning to operate as one requires…ALL of those things are extremely important. But all of those things are not, in themselves, the reason for all of those things. If those things become the primary focus, the purpose of your marriage, you’re missing the point.
Let’s be honest, there are men out there that need to spend a lot more time and effort loving their spouses like Jesus loves the church—giving himself up for her. Husbands are called to love their wives in this way. There are men (most of us I presume) who need to die more to themselves in loving service to their wives. We need to be pursuing our wives better, planning date nights, and going out of our way to love and serve her.
Jesus laid down his life for the church (and we should lay down ours for our wives), but he didn’t stop there. He didn’t love her (the church) by simply seeking to make her temporally happy (although sometimes loving her includes this). Laying down his life for her was not an end unto itself, but rather a means to a greater end. He laid down his life for her. And then he called her—to follow after him, to die to her own vision for her life, and to join a greater mission. In the same way, we have to lead our marriages towards something greater than the marriage—something greater than the family unit. We have to love our spouse towards a greater end than each other.
I don’t say this to be harsh but only out of a deep conviction that the secret to life is that life is found when we lay down the pursuit of the life that we think will make us happy and trust God’s plan and his design. I say it out of a deep conviction that when we surrender to God’s design for marriage—to seek first the kingdom of heaven together—we will not only be more satisfied in our marriage but will experience the full blessing He intends marriage to be. Inward focus always enslaves, smothers, and kills. Finally, I say it as a husband that is still learning what it looks like to lead in this way on a daily basis—relying on the blood of Jesus and his unceasing grace when I get it wrong.
Nonetheless, I am fully persuaded that God’s purpose for marriage is not that marriage would be an end unto itself, but that His name would be glorified as you complete, with your helper, the work that He has assigned to you: the ministry of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Everything else is just a bonus.